While scrolling through my Twitter feed this week, I came upon an image promoting Diversity Week, MSU Diversity Services’ annual series of events. The image was meant to bring students to the “Iconic Women Photo Booth”— an event allowing students to take photos dressed as famous women in history — set up in MUSC, and featured a male student dressed in an intended Frida Kahlo costume, with a drawn on unibrow and traditional Mexican floral headpiece.
I was happy to see Kahlo being acknowledged and celebrated on campus, but I was also taken aback by the spectacle that was being made, whether unintentional or not, of her physical beauty choices and her mimicked ethnic attire.
Frida Kahlo proudly wore joined eyebrows for years, and would even enhance her brows as sparrows and flowers in her self-portraits. It was a big part of her image, but it should not be her defining feature as an artist and as a woman.
Kahlo was an artist known for her powerful feminist beliefs and artwork, but without any obvious signage explaining that, her representation only served the purpose of an entertaining costume.
As a woman of colour, exoticism has become a familiar concept to me. And over the years, I’ve learned that there is a fine line between celebrating diversity and making it into a spectacle. I appreciate the work of Diversity Services and the efforts they make to create a campus welcoming to all identities (and I encourage you to check out their other events throughout the week), but it is in the overlooking of these details that the overall beneficial message of an event like this can get lost.
It is important to acknowledge these iconic women, but physical impersonations may not be the best route for this; by focusing on appearances, they may end up emphasizing these icons’ physical traits rather than embracing them for their beliefs and actions. A similar effect to the one intended could have been garnered from a sharing of artwork or quotes, or having students express a positive personal sentiment towards one of the figures.
I don’t have a problem with the choice to create displays out of the fashions of famous women — Kahlo was known to have a great sense of humour and, were she alive today, may even encourage the use of her famous facial hair to spark conversation — but it is important to make sure there is the correct information and education accompanying these displays, and that symbolic cultural and personal traits do not become reduced to a costume.